Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Capitalism and/as suffering

No one in their right mind would associate capitalism with suffering, would they? Isn’t it about enjoyment of commodities, ostentatious consumption, celebrity life and wealth accumulation? And what is there about all this that could be connected with “suffering”? Of course, one could elaborate, as Hardt and Negri do in Multitude (2005) and elsewhere, about the suffering that intolerable debt levels impose on nations of the developing world (which go hand in hand with material suffering), but that’s not my concern here.

There’s a different sense of suffering under capitalism, however, and believe it or not, it manifests itself in what is known, in psychoanalysis, as “obsessional (compulsion) neurosis”. A first clue for understanding this is afforded by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1919, p116), where he remarks that “ … the character of compulsion neurotics shows a predominant trait of painful conscientiousness which is a symptom of reaction against the temptation which lurks in the unconscious, and which develops into the highest degrees of guilty conscience as their illness grows worse”.

Another clue is found in Freud’s observation, in the same work, that obsessional neurosis may be regarded as a “caricature” of a religion. What the two have in common is the element of a guilty conscience in relation to a temptation of sorts — to do whatever is prohibited by the religion in question, or in the case of someone who is clinically obsessive-neurotic, to avoid doing something, the thought of doing which fills them with unbearable anxiety (without knowing the origin of this prohibition).

The point here is not that everyone working under conditions of capitalism is an obsessive neurotic, “clinically” speaking. Rather, as Freud believed, and as Dutch psychoanalytic theorist, Philippe van Haute recently reminded one, by scrutinising pathological conditions such as hysteria and obsessive neurosis, and examining their constitutive features, one learns something about the human condition as such, because pathological conditions are exacerbations or exaggerations of behavioural traits that are found in the behaviour of “normal” people as well. And what is at stake here is the behavioural pattern of “normal” people under conditions of capitalist production, which displays features of obsessional neurosis.

Ian Parker, a practising Lacanian psychoanalyst, adds an important clue to the above where he points out (In Lacanian Psychoanalysis — Revolutions in Subjectivity, 2011, p42), that “Those who suffer in obsessional mode under capitalism are subjects who buy into the separation of intellectual and manual labour, the separation of thinking from being … ” If we read this together with another remark (p41), that there is a name in psychoanalysis for someone who, paradoxically, resists “the progress of the analytic work precisely because they are so compliant with the analyst, ‘obsessional neurotic’ ”, things begin to fall into place.

What do we have here? Guilt, painful conscientiousness, implicit (if not explicit) prohibition, compliance, anxiety. This seems perfectly plausible in the case of a religion that demands of its adherents conscientious acts of confession, or penance, or devotion, and of primitive, totemic people (discussed by Freud) who live with anxieties induced by taboos such as that pertaining to touching a chieftain on pain of death, but how does this apply to life under capitalism? It seems counter-intuitive, to say the least, considering that capitalism appears to promote enjoyment through commodity consumption, not anxiety.

Certainly, as far as consumers are concerned. But what about people working in a capitalist system of production? Could one plausibly speak of suffering here? And could one understand this better in the light of the nature of obsessional neurosis? Some time ago I posted something on the growing resistance to capitalist work, based on a paper presented by one of the US’s most respected psychologists, Professor Silvia Federici from New York. She alluded to widespread signs that a turning point seems to have been reached today regarding conformity to capitalist work, which resonates with what Parker says about compliance (above). From what Federici went on to say, it was clear that not only workers in the sense of labourers are involved, but people who work at every level of economic activity imaginable, from manual workers to CEOs of companies.

Especially important for the theme of suffering under capitalism is what Federici termed “the development of industrial discipline” by mainstream psychology, as well as social developments that exhibit what she described as “the deep crisis bodies and subjectivities are experiencing in our time”. There is, for example, the “massification of depression” and the “epidemic of eating disorders”, all of which she read as symptoms of an increasing alienation from the typical capitalist “discipline of work”. Correlative to this there is the formation of communes across the US, where — in contrast to the encouragement of individual competition for scarce resources, including jobs, under capitalism — interdependence of a social as well as an economic kind is practised.

Confirming Federici’s insights, Parker (2011: 87) notes that “A peculiarity of subjectivity under capitalism is that the human subject — the nature of their being in the world and their reflexively elaborated relation to others — is … that subject as an isolated individual … another peculiarity … is that the individual subject is torn between a relation to capital and a relation to the labour process”. It is not difficult to understand why this is the case. As Parker further argues, in her or his relation to capital as commodity-exchange system, the labour power of the working subject him- or herself is commodified, and concomitantly relations are reified, as if they are “things”.

In contrast, Parker points out, work or labour, which offers the possibility of being experienced as the space of creativity of human beings, is negated as such through unemployment, de-skilling and control. This is where one face of suffering under capitalism appears: Parker (p88) draws attention to “Uncertainty, procrastination, powerlessness, resentment and secretive victories over a world that renders it guilty at its heart for its failure and complicity with exploitation … ” on the part of the “obsessional neurotic” subject under capitalism.

One should note the ambivalence of his formulation — the guilt derives from both a feeling of “failure” (one can never be productive enough in the eyes of the capitalist master) and “complicity with exploitation” (the realisation that one’s labour unavoidably contributes to it). The sense in which one can conceive of workers under capitalism in terms of suffering is captured well where Parker points out that (p91) “ … obsessional neurosis is one strategy for coexisting with this demand … ” of acknowledging the “symbolic apparatus” or capitalist discourse, which accords it legitimacy.

This comes at a price, of course, which confines the subject discursively in a work-prison of their own choosing. One can always take the “hysteric’s” course of action, which means, in clinical terms, that a symptom of some (for example psycho-somatic) kind would embody the subject’s conflicted condition, indicting the system in which he or she is trapped, or “ … breaking the rules in ostentatious displays of non-compliance” (Parker p92).

A more acute manifestation of suffering under capitalism is encountered in the case of psychoses, grasped as the construction of alternative discourses (which psychiatry labels as “delusional”), but which Lacanian psychoanalysis prefers to think of in linguistic terms. Parker (p92) reminds one that “this is painful and … the construction of an alternative universe may turn out to be as unbearable as the one neurotics inhabit”.

That under present historical conditions capitalism is implicated in both “neurotic” and “psychotic” suffering, however, leaves no doubt as far as he is concerned (p92): “ … the nature of ‘psychosis’ needs to be theorised in such a way as to embed it in the political-economic system against which it stands and of which it speaks”. Do you recognise any of this in people you know? I do.

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    • Tofolux

      The capitalist walls are tumbling down! What a wonderful prospect.

    • Stephen Browne

      I recognise it in myself, never mind people I know! This sentence in particular jumped out at me: “Uncertainty, procrastination, powerlessness, resentment and secretive victories over a world that renders it guilty at its heart for its failure and complicity with exploitation … ”

      I come from an extremely conservative Protestant/Baptist background (most of which, despite myself, I’ve only partially managed to toss out) so I guess a double whammy?

      It’s hard to describe the confusing mix and match of simultaneously feeling like I’m being utterly exploited (effectively doing 2 jobs, long hours, not enough pay, constantly on call) and lazy (I could do more, my boss and clients depend on me so no time for a break.)

      In the same vein, it feels petty to complain about my ‘bad’ job when so many have none. Yet it feels unfair to myself to continue beating my body and mind!

      Glad I could read this, I’d imagine I’m not alone …

    • Stephen

      @ Tofolux: “the capitalist walls are tumbling down, what a wonderful prospect”. Oops, there goes your pension, and any efficient return on your savings. And your beloved regime’s ability to feed and educate the societally marginalised and economically disenfranchised masses.

      @ Bert: you read a lot. I’m impressed, but do you have any ideas of your own?

    • Enough Said

      Capitalism is on its way out, maybe two decades at most. We need to be discussing what we want to replace it.

    • Cam Cameron

      So, people hate working and wish they didn’t have to? Same in a capitalist or a socialist system, really.

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      Discourse on ‘capitalism’ has degenerated into a meaningless diatribe in which a commentator asserts that capitalism means exactly and whatsoever such wants and needs it to mean in the service of an argument.

      Now ‘capitalism’ supposedly lies at the root of mental illness and associated suffering?

      Once the walls, both physical and political, enclosing the former Soviet bloc came down, what lay behind revealed a great many very unhappy (and long suffering) people.
      Things are improving, albeit inexorably slowly…..there in not only one ‘legacy’ in the world which will stymie people for generations to come.

    • Capitalist

      Bert’s got it just about right: capitalism (what ever that is and however you choose to define it) is a really rotten system.

      The only thing it’s got going for it is that the alternatives are worse.

      While there are no quotes in the article about the neurosis (or psychosis) of Marxism, these are not necessary: there is a reason that people struggle to flee from socialist & centrally planned economies to capitalist ones (was the Berlin Wall a figment of mass hysteria?) Societies cleaved into capitalist and alternative halves (Germany, China, Vietnam, Korea, India/Pakistan); starting from a similar development and social level and with the same populations found that capitalism provided for their citizens’ material wants and allowed dissent, unlike the alternatives.

      And while we are being empirical, the combined various flavours of socialism under messrs Hitler, Stalin and Mao are probably the single biggest single cause of death in the history of the planet. And that’s ignoring other non-capitalists like Pol Pot, Castro, Kim and friends.

    • Garg Unzola

      I’m more fascinated by the psyche that can present a psychoanalysis of something without a psyche with a straight face.

    • http://Capitalismand/assuffering proactive

      A harsh referral to “Capitalism” blows a lot of minds- adding some Freud not to forget Marx- can create a nuclear reaction!

      With due respect, Philosophers seem a special breed of capitalists- also in constant capitalistic mode of production. Their product not an easy one to digest or understand, leaving some folks confused & neurotic, searching for connections to our past, the present, the future and relevance. Of interest would be explanations about the cause & connections between population growth, education, restricting levels in wages for labor & happiness.

      There are over fifty economic systems since feudalism faded away- the most effective form evolved so far would be a market based free enterprise mixed economy- or “Welfare Capitalism”- not heavenly, but not plain ‘Capitalism’.

      Some seem to rejoice at the possible collapse of simple Capitalism! A Capitalist is understood to be one who is very rich and has lots of assets, like cows, kraals & business interests. Normally accumulated through exceptional entrepreneurship, special skills and tireless dedication.

      Unfortunately, we have a rather unique type ‘Marxian Economy’- better known as “Crony Capitalism” (plutocracy, tribal feudalism, nepotism, totalitarianism, fundamentalism, confusion-ism, tax evasions etc)- one agrees, such walls of destructive capitalism must collapse!

      This would release a lot of sufferings, anxieties, psychoses from folks who understand ‘Welfare Capitalism’ a bit…

    • future

      Any system, cultural or biological, finds itself in constant change or evolution.

      The history of the universe, the planet, life on earth and our human civilisation, its many cultures – all of these have found themselves in a constant flux between change and adaption. This is the very feature of our living existence.

      The recent history has brought a lot of changes to our civilisation and our planet in a very short time. It is to be expected that there will be a mismatch in our adaption to the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

      So a couple of thousand years ago, humans fought other battles for survival. We are facing the modern equivalent.

      Overall, most of our material needs are met, so is this new battle the one for spiritual survival?

    • Nicholas Jakari

      Hey Bert
      Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ve apparently been so busy with phenomenology that you missed it.

      Capitalism is dead. It died in 2007 with the collapse of Lehman Bros.

      There I was, at that time, struggling to justify how my ‘heroine’ in my cell phone Internet story ‘The Jonker Memorandum could justify her election promise, to give every citizen basic pay (to eliminate the horror of poverty and unemployment ) when Mr Bernanke came to my rescue and made all things possible.

      So because you ( and apparently the entity called Tofolux) missed it, it is called Quantitative Easing (QE) … I.o.w. free money.

      PS. If you want to know how one pays for free money you’ll have to listen to episode 75. (the tale contains 85 episode and when I finish this I shall complete recording episode 79.) Google me and ye shall find it.

    • Baz

      Capitalism creates job opportunties and is for those wanting to take risks and above all are those who are entrepreneurs with creative abitity always checking and learning how to shape their businesses and PAY their taxes . They are survivors of the worst recessions this country has had and WORK BLOODY LONG hours to keep their companies afloat, so, their employees can still have a job no matter what they do within the company. About time ANC encouraged all & supported people with entrepreneurship skills to start their own structured business to decrease our unemployed skilled labour force. It would put less pressure on SASSA giving child grants etc .
      Capitalism is the nuts & buts of any 1st world country. Should it disappear , heaven help our marginalised & economically disenfranchised masses will suffer more.
      Social communism never survived successfully & collapsed in the corridoors of time.
      Think about……

    • Baz

      … Nut and bolts pardon the error.

      We need more people to encouraged to become self employed and enjoy the friuts of capitism regardless of cultural backgrounds and offer training to loyal personnel.
      Or has our society become the lazy and adopted the “entilement attitude” Sorry to say only survivors succeed whether you an employer or employee.
      End of discussion.

    • Maria

      What can I say, other than that most of those who commented here remind me of the saying, that if one does not understand something, one should shut up. Thus people don’t know if you do understand or not, instead of opening your mouth and removing all doubt. This post is about suffering, i.e. pathology, under current economic conditions. That does not mean that there are not sufferings that are related to other social and economic systems, such as communism. But they would be different, because they construe the individual very differently compared to the egocentric subject under capitalism. Is that so difficult to understand? I would recommend the book by Ian Parker that Bert refers to for those who are interested in this.

    • Enough Said

      Social Anarchism is what I would like to see replace capitalism.

    • Rene

      Yeah, I know a lot of people who show signs of suffering this way…

    • http://Capitalismand/assuffering proactive

      ….interesting responses!

      In the interest to protect tolerance and in defense of all “philosophical challenged or underprivileged”, referred to by Maria and ordered to shut up- an obvious eloquent and knowledgeable master of such a craft- does that not sound rather dictatorial and impatient? Maybe a further burden & cause of sufferings in our tense & neurotic capitalistic environment?

      Relevance might have it, that if such principle is applied wider and reaches all those who are not sufficiently skilled, educated or in the know- one might conclude that democracy or any other system of enlightenment remains conditional, held apart and only reserved for equals?

    • Momma Cyndi

      One does not necessarily need to be in the capitalist system to be neurotic and ‘normal’ is so huge that defining neurosis is difficult enough. I have been straightening pictures on walls since way before I joined the capitalist rat race. Does that make me neurotic? Not at all. We all have some minor OCD quirks.

      It would be interesting to see the effect on those symptoms with a dose of meditation or a good long weekend to recharge the batteries.

      Was the ancient caveman neurotic about having enough to eat or having enough warm pelts to keep warm? Bet my bottom dollar that some of them were and some weren’t. Just depended on the caveman

    • Maria

      @ proactive: I’m not at all suggesting that only some informed elite should read, or can understand, this post; quite the opposite, in fact. I am suggesting that everyone who has commented here can, on closer inspection/reading, make sense of it (which does not mean agreement; just understanding), and without the irrelevant comments made by some. I am in full agreement with Ranciere where he argues that everyone is capable of understanding a given text, situation, art work, etc. One simply has to add that this presupposes that one sheds one’s prejudices to be able to do so. And I see a lot of prejudice or bias here.

    • Garg Unzola

      Why the compulsion to post about economic topics then? Ian Parker clearly doesn’t understand capitalism and neither do Hardt and Negri. This isn’t mudslinging, this is just an informed opinion from someone who’s studied economics. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Karl Marx can’t recognise his own writings in Hardt and Negri’s grandstanding. Even woefully inept Naomi Klein had more relevant glossolalia to offer.

      As previously mentioned, capitalism has many relevant critiques but they’re not forthcoming from the champagne socialists who have to regurgitate the final death-knell of capitalism ever so often to try and remain in the public eye. It’s public intellectual terrorism, nothing more.

      There is no dark and deep mystery. The simplest explanation is the most likely, and that is these poor sods are mere ideologues who know more about literary theory than economics or psychology.

    • Maria

      @Garg: Oh, and YOU understand capitalism in all its varieties, because you have studied it and you don’t think Parker, Klein, Hardt and Negri and someone like Harvey have done so too? Have you published a commensurate number of books on it compared to, say, Hardt and Negri or Harvey, a scholar Bert often refers to? Remind yourself that economics has never been an uncontested intellectual domain – there is hardly any agreement on it among even the most eminent theorists. And besides, the more people call attention to the social “effects” of this exploitative economic system, which is lurching from one crisis to the next today, the sooner we’ll be rid of it. I can’t wait, and nor can the many readers of these, and other scholars who are unmasking capitalism for what it truly is.

    • Bob

      The 1st sentence of the post: “No one in their right mind would associate capitalism with suffering, would they?” is truly bizarre, since every serious market-oriented economist admits that capitalism has nasty side-effects. Creative destruction involves losers. Nobody disputes this.

      That Maria, in absolute conflict with “sapere aude!”, tells the public to “shut up” when they question Parker/Olivier, sheds more light on this nondebate than anything in the original post. By all means Maria, go back to writing your papers, which only your direct peers will ever read. Anyone with that “shut up” attitude may get published and cited, but their real impact on society will be zero.

    • Maria

      Bobby boy, you haven’t read my response to “proactive”, above. I merely detest gut-level reactions which are no more than ideological, instead of attempts to understand what the post actually says. Stephen Browne’s response is a splendid example of someone who actually understood what was written here. The usual suspects who mindlessly defend capitalism don’t seem to have tried to understand it.

    • Garg Unzola

      If there’s hardly any agreement amongst those in the field, how can there be agreement amongst those ignorant of the field as to the evils of something that is evidently far outside their field and perhaps even outside their grasp?

    • PrettyBelinda

      Its just a fact, the world of business and the world of work have left their scars on the psyche of the human race. Both economic systems have eaten into our humanness. One thing we have mastered through our experiments with various economic systems is to bring about crisis upon crisis. Very few people can claim to be entirely happy at work. We have successfully created a culture of rat race in the workplace and in our business networks.

    • proactive

      Eish, its time to relax, explode or stoke the fire- remove all tight fitting uniforms of all the ‘isms arguing endlessly about nothing but glorious life on earth- the normal, the abnormal, the good the bad & the very ugly!

      Those who feel in need to: cry, laugh, confess, repent, feel done in, disadvantaged by not only capitalism, communism, socialism or humanism and all their imagined side effects be it unhappiness with themselves, their opponents, their competitors, their teachers, their work, their colleges, their own blissful ignorance, their effected mentality, their bosses, their slave drivers, their workers, their clients, their parents, their children, their spouses, the dishonest politicians, their badly effected relationships with everyone, their partners, the shoes who rub too much, their messed up make up, their car who keeps breaking, the weather which is too cold or hot, too much imported rubbish from China, global warming…please do- that’s life…but please understand also that everyone has to find their own suitable wailing walls, find the cracks to stuff their little papers of frustration in- west or east…..also learn to bite the bullet, cheer up and carry on, chill out or jump of a cliff- but avoid make the last survivors of happy people not yet miserable, miserably!

    • Aragorn Eloff

      @Garg: “Ian Parker clearly doesn’t understand capitalism and neither do Hardt and Negri.”

      Really? And I guess David Harvey doesn’t either, nor do Christian Marazzi or Maurizio Lazzarato? Nor do any of them, as self-identified Marxists, understand Marx, according to you, expert on the writings of Marx that you are. Out of interest, which books of Negri and Hardt’s have you actually properly read?

    • Momma Cyndi


      You have my vote for being the one and only voice of sanity on this page.
      Life is what you make of it

    • proactive

      Momma, that makes 2! ….cheers, skaal, prosit, sante, salute, viva, nasdarovje to life, sanity and normality! …………..but only if we get permission to say so from Maria & Co!

    • Garg Unzola

      Self-identified Christians hardly ever read the Bible. Do they know more about their religion than I do by virtue of there self-identification? I will properly read anything that appears worthwhile, but last time you made a reading recommendation I had to put up with David Graeber.

      I have read Marx and despite the claims that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist pig, I am interested in balanced views and have no interest in proselytising for or against a flavour of the week (or weak, in this case) ideology.

      As previously mentioned, the best criticism of capitalism (actually of economics in general) I’ve managed to find is Steve Keen’s debunking economics. Great for if you want to know what’s wrong with Smith and Marx as far as their economics go.

      Why is this better than Hardt and Negri, et al? Well, blimey. He actually discusses economics and not how people feel about economics or how a system without a psyche feels.This may be of interest to some, but it’s no substitute for a valid nor relevant criticism of the system itself. It’s just a highbrow, stuck up way of avoiding the topic and wallowing in self-deceit.